A cleaver is a kitchen knife with a large and rectangular blade, similar to a hatchet. The blade is usually between 150mm (6”) to 254mm (10”) long and around 76mm (3”) to 101mm (4”) deep.
A Cleaver knife is mostly used as a butcher knife or kitchen knife. The tough edge of a cleaver knife is more resistant than average kitchen knives. It can resist repeated blows against denser items with fewer damage risks. The cleaver will cut through big cuts of meat, cartilage, and thick bones. This is possible because the high carbon steel or stainless steel material is tough enough to resist heavy use without fractures.
Cleaver knives are butcher knives that you use in a unique method. Primarily, you swing the knife. The cleaver relies heavily on sheer momentum to make precise and quick cuts. The cutting technique is similar to how you would use a hammer or meat tenderizer. You chop through the meat or bones instead of slicing in a back-and-forth motion.
Your proficiency using a cleaver knife will depend on how hard you swing it and the weight of the knife. These two factors also allow the cleaver knife to be functional even if it doesn’t have a sharp cutting edge. Knifemakers deliberately sharpen cleaver knives at a 25 degree angle. The cutting edge is blunter but more durable than most other kitchen knives.
Types of Cleaver Knife
Cleaver knives are available in two types: one for cutting meat and another one for cutting vegetables.
Western Cleavers — Primarily Used for Meat
The Western meat cleaver has a large and heavy blade with a rectangular shape. The blade’s back edge is thick and robust, allowing the knife to chop dense meat and bones while remaining stable and preventing damage.
The cutting edge of a heavy cleaver is straight and lengthy without any curvatures. This edge is slightly dull. Primarily, this cleaver knife relies on weight and momentum for cutting power. Western cleavers usually have offset and wooden handles, but some brands offer polymer and other materials.
Use this cleaver type if you prepare meat dishes regularly. It will chop thick cuts of meat, tendons, frozen foods, soft bones, meat joints, poultry, and fish.
The Chinese Meat Cleaver
The Chinese meat cleaver or Gudao (“bone cleaver,” “bone chopper”) is the Chinese version of the Western cleaver. Both share similar features like a heavy and thick cleaver blade to chop through meat and bones without resistance.
Japanese Deba Knife
Japanese cuisine often uses the Deba Bocho (“pointed carving knife”) as the main butchering knife. Deba knives are thick and heavy like Western cleavers, but the shape of the blade is not rectangular. A Deba blade has a thick heel that tapers down to the tip. Plus, the thick spine has a slight convex curve up to the pointed tip.
A Deba knife can cut boneless cuts of meat like beef and break down poultry. It can also cut through small chicken bones without damage. However, the main purpose of this knife is to prepare fish. The sturdy blade can behead fish, the curved cutting edge slices fish meat close to the backbone, and the pointed tip helps remove rib cage bones and Y bones.
Chukabocho, the Japanese Equivalent of the Chinese Kitchen Knife
Chukabocho is the Japanese butcher knife equivalent of the Chinese kitchen knife. The name means Chinese (“Chuka”) knife (“Bocho”). However, Japanese knifemakers use traditional forging methods to produce this knife.
A Chukabocho has the same rectangular shape as Western cleavers. Nonetheless, these Japanese knives are lighter and smaller. You can use Chukabocho knives for cutting meat, but also as general-purpose kitchen knives to prepare different dishes.
Chinese Chef’s knife — Primarily Used for Vegetables
The Chinese vegetable knife looks like a Western cleaver and is often incorrectly compared to Western meat cleavers. However, the blade of the Chinese knife (Cai Dao) is more fragile. It’s more lightweight and thinner than most cleavers, and the cutting edge is sharper. This sharp knife is more suitable for slicing, dicing, and mincing vegetables with the precision of a classic Chef’s knife.
You can also use the Cai Dao to press on garlic bulbs, ginger, and herbs before moving them to the bowl using the flat side of the blade. If necessary, the Chinese vegetable cleaver will cut through boneless cuts of meat.
The Japanese Nakiri, or “Knife for Cutting Greens”
Japanese cutlery offers the Nakiri Bocho, which means “knife for cutting greens.” These knives look similar to the Chinese vegetable cleaver. Both have small, rectangular blades with a minor point and straight cutting edge.
A Nakiri is specifically for cutting vegetables. Nakiri knives are lightweight and small when compared to other cleavers. Therefore, handling this traditional Japanese knife is easier. You can maneuver the knife with complete control while chopping vegetables into thin layers.
The blade of the Nakiri knife is usually carbon steel and can be super sharp. As a result, you can use the Nakiri for chopping tough vegetables like carrots and potatoes under a quick up-and-down cutting motion.
Nakiri knives are not suitable for cutting through thick meat joints or bones. The blades are delicate and will go off course under pressure. They may also chip or snap if you use them for these purposes.
What is a Cleaver Knife Used For?
The main purpose of a cleaver knife is to split thin or soft bones, cut sinew, and chop through tendons in cuts of meat. This knife can also section large meat joints that would cause a thinner knife to go off course. Additionally, cleaver knives can chop through thin bones and separate ribs of poultry to break down a whole chicken. Another common application of a cleaver knife is beheading big fish like salmon for later filleting.
But the cleaver knife is capable of more than just prepping cuts of meat and poultry.
For instance, you can use the weight of the knife to chop and dice large fruits or vegetables quickly. Use the cleaver to cut squashes like butternut and to process big root veg in considerable amounts.
The cleaver knife also has flat blade sides that can help you pound and crush herbs. This way, you can flatten these ingredients over the cutting board and keep their flavors.
You can also use cleaver knife as a bench scraper to transfer or scoop the chopped vegetables. You can pick up the diced herbs or chopped vegetables with the blade to throw them into a bowl or pan.
Can You Use a Cleaver Knife for Everything as a General-purpose Knife?
Truthfully, a cleaver can be a general-purpose knife capable of doing almost anything. People mostly use it for cutting through tough meats, but also for slicing vegetables like onions. Use the heel of the knife for peeling potatoes, and the side of the blade to smash garlic cloves. The Chinese cleaver is an ideal example of a versatile cleaver. Professional cooks use the Chinese-style cleaver as general-purpose knives in the kitchen, even for carving.
Can’t You Just Use a Chef’s Knife for Splitting Bones?
A chef’s knife can cut through small and soft bones, like those of chicken and fish. However, bones in denser cuts of meat like beef are thicker and wider. Cutting these bones with chef knives would require plenty of arm strength and time. Still, the cuts won’t be clean, and you will likely damage the blade.
Cleaver knives are better for this purpose due to their weight and thickness. You swing the knife down and let the momentum guide the blade through the bones.
What to Look for in a Cleaver Knife?
Here are my suggestions for things to consider before buying a cleaver knife:
Before buying a cleaver knife, ask yourself why you need it. If you only need the cleaver to prepare cuts of meat, then you need a Western meat cleaver. The Chinese Gudao is another alternative for this specific task. These two types of knife cleaver knives will section small or large meat pieces like beef or venison with ease.
For a more versatile cleaver knife, you should consider the Asian Cai Dao or Chukabocho. These are multi-purpose cleavers that can complete some of the tasks you usually perform with a chef knife. Use these Asian-style cleavers to cut through soft bones and dice or mince herbs. On the other hand, consider a Japanese Nakiri if you mostly prepare vegetables instead of dense cuts of meat.
I strongly recommend buying cleaver knives with stainless steel blades. Stainless steel blades are easier to clean and are more resistant to rust and corrosion. They don’t require the same attention or care as high-carbon steel. High-carbon steel needs constant cleaning and frequent oiling for preservation. You can put aside the bloodied stainless steel cleaver knife to focus on other kitchen tasks and trust the blade won’t stain or damage.
Stainless steel isn’t as sharp or easy to sharpen as high-carbon steel, but that’s not a problem with cleaver knives. In this case, you don’t necessarily need extremely sharp knives. Cleaver knives need robust and sturdy blades, sometimes with a slightly blunt edge. These are all benefits that you get from stainless steel, which is also cheaper than high-carbon steel.
If you have the time to maintain knives and prefer finer work, then consider a high-carbon steel cleaver knife. These are extra sharp to section cuts of meats, cut chicken breasts, and break down whole fish in seconds. High carbon steel is also ideal if you prefer a knife like the Nakiri for slicing veggies in thinner layers.
Depth, Width, and Thickness of the Blade
The additional depth and width provide more weight to the knife. This is necessary to hack through bone by using gravity in your favor. Likewise, the extra thickness strengthens the blade. The cutting edge is tougher and can withstand continuous blows while chopping through dense meat, cartilage, and thick bones, until hitting the cutting board. This resistance level is only possible by using softer steel and a thick blade build. Using harder steel or a thinner blade could snap the blade under the same pressure.
A heavier and thicker blade also allows you to use the cleaver in different ways. For instance, you can use the side of the blade to smash garlic cloves, ginger, beans, and more.
Wooden handles are arguably the better option for a knife cleaver. These handles look great and feel comfortable, which is essential for the intended use of the cleaver. When you swing the knife and cut through beef bones, the wooden scales reduce vibrations and impact force. Thus, you won’t hurt your hand. This benefit is particularly useful if you have to make repeated blows to cut through thick joints and meat bones.
The recommended size for a cleaver knife is 177cm (7”) or 203mm (8”) in length. Some cleavers can be as large as 10 inches, but lengthier blades can be a detriment. Realistically, any cleaver with a 7 or 8-inch blade is the most comfortable to hold.
Remember that these knives are heavy, and wielding large cleavers can cause wrist fatigue or control loss. Using knives that you can’t control is risky, especially when swinging a cleaver knife to chop through bones. If you’re a small person, look for small and lighter cleaver knives. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to use the knife to its full potential.
The cleaver knife must have a full tang, period. Full-tang knives have the blade steel run through the handle and are easier to control. Furthermore, full-tang cleavers will resist the blows needed to chop through meat and fish bones.
Using partial or half-tang cleaver knives can be risky. When you swing the knife and hit the cutting board with significant force, the blade could snap. There are considerably fewer risks of these accidents happening if you use a full-tang cleaver knife.
Hole in Blade
Cleaver knives, especially Western meat cleavers, may have holes in the blade. These holes are super convenient. You can use it to hang the knife on a meat hook or tool rack. This way, you don’t leave the cleaver lying around or inside a drawer. The hole in the blade provides a safer storage option that will keep the cleaver secured.
This hole also serves other purposes while butchering meat. You can wrap your finger through the hole to get more leverage and apply more force. This benefit will allow you to cut through denser meat joints and pull the blade if it gets stuck in a bone.